Diana of Ephesus: Keeping Abreast with Iconography

Some of my long-time readers will remember my previous post on Saint Lucy, whose iconography (or visual symbol) is a pair of eyeballs. I remember being struck by how St. Lucy’s iconography was so unusual (and kinda grotesque, in my opinion). Some comments on that previous post mentioned another unusual example of hagiographic iconography: Saint Agatha carries her breasts on a platter (see an example by Zurbaran here). Today, though, I remembered another female figure associated with kinda bizarre iconography: Diana of Ephesus. Although Diana (or “Artemis” to the ancient Greeks) isn’t a Catholic saint like Lucy and Agatha (she’s a fertility goddess from classical mythology), I would have to say that her iconography might be the most unusual of all. Take a look:

Artemis of Ephesus (known as the “Beautiful Artemis” statue), 2nd century CE Roman copy from Hadrian period (Ephesus Archaeological Museum, Turkey)
Artemis of Ephesus (known as the “Great Artemis” statue), 1st century CE from Trajan period (Ephesus Archaeological Museum)

With breasts aplenty, it’s easy to tell that Diana of Ephesus was an ancient goddess of fertility, but her iconography might be little more complex than one would suppose! In 1979 a scholar name Gerard Seiterle pointed out that none of the supposed breasts of Diana/Artemis figurines have nipples. Seiterle argued that instead of breasts, Diana is laden will bull testes.1 This is an interesting argument for two reasons: 1) the bull was symbol of fertility in ancient times and 2) the altar at Ephesus would have been large enough to sacrifice a bull. Although Seiterle’s argument is not accepted by all scholars (I personally don’t feel quite convinced), it does add an interesting element to the discussion of Diana’s iconography, don’t you think?2

Even if early depictions of Diana do not include nipples on her breasts, I noticed that later depictions do include nipples:

Diana of Ephesus, detail from The Discovery of the Child Erichtonius by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1615
Fountain of Diana of Ephesus, Villa d’Este, 16th century

Diana of Ephesus was a very popular goddess in ancient times (in fact, some readers may be interested to know that worship of Diana is mentioned in the Bible (see Acts 19:28 and Acts 19:35). Additionally, Diana’s temple at Ephesus (Temple of Artemis) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I get the sense, though, that she wasn’t as popular (and more specifically, her traditional iconography wasn’t as popular) in more recent artistic periods like the Renaissance (although some examples from later periods exist, as I’ve shown above).3 Perhaps Diana of Ephesus’ multi-breasted appearance was too far from the Renaissance standards of idealization?

If you can put forward a more unusual type of iconography than Diana of Ephesus, speak up!

*UPDATE (07/12): Upon visiting the Ephesus Archaeological Museum this past summer, I purchased a copy of the museum catalog. The museum wholly endorses Seiterle’s interpretation. This is what the catalog says, “The distinctive feature that all these three statues [the Great Artemis, the Beautiful Artemis, and the Little Artemis statuette] have in common in the presence of multiple pieces resembling eggs, hanging on the goddess, who was thought to have a connection with the way of worship, and initially, since these were believed to be breasts, the Artemis Ephesia was referred to as the Multi-breasted Artemis for years. Interpretations regarding them as bunches of grapes, dates or eggs, however, did not gain much credence.

In 1978, G. Seiterle came up with a new interpretation. He claimed that these pieces resembling eggs were bull testicles offered to the goddess in religious rituals, as a symbol of fertility. In order to prove his claim, he presented a reconstruction of the statue with testicles hung on it. The resulting sight was identical with the statue!

Excavations at around the altar of the temple also indicated that the bull had a great cultural impact for the Artemis cult. Thus the much-debated academic question was resolved.”4

1 See Gerard Seiterle, “Artemis: die Grosse Göttin von Ephesos” Antike Welt 10 (1979): 3-16. Seiterle is also mentioned (although his name is misspelled) in Vicki Goldberg, “In Search of Diana of Ephesus” in New York Times 21 August 1994 (citation available online here). I also found some scholars discussing Seiterle’s argument on this WikiTalk.

2 Wikipedia mentions here that Seiterle’s argument was “accepted in the 1980s by Walter Burkert and Brita Alroth, among others, criticised and rejected by Robert Fleischer, but widely popularized.” For an argument against Seiterle, see Fleischer, “Neues zur kleinasiatischen Kultstatue” Archäologischer Anzeiger 98 1983:81-93; Bammer 1990:153.

3 It’s interesting to note that a Renaissance humanist scholar might have been interested in Diana of Ephesus, though. It’s possible that Andrea Odoni is holding a statuette of Diana of Ephesus in his portrait (painted by Lorenzo Lotti, 1527). See portrait and discussion here.

4 Cengiz Topal et. al (Curators of the Ephesus Museum), Ephesus Museum Guide (Istanbul: BKG Publications, 2010), 120.

  • heidenkind says:

    In the Roman copy it does look like she has nipples to me. And even if those two statues don't have nipples, they don't really look like testes.

  • Kiersten says:

    I can't think of anything more unusual, but I have to say that I found that breast fountain pretty disturbing!

  • M says:

    heidenkind: Yeah, I don't think that they really look like testes either. That's one reason why I'm not convinced by Sieterle's argument. I know that there was a stress on idealization back then, but I doubt that testes would have been idealized beyond recognition!

    Kiersten: Ha! It is kind of disturbing, in a way. J thought that it was quite humorous. Perhaps it's disturbingly clever?

  • H Niyazi says:

    Great post M! I don't think this concept was too far beyond Renaissance ideals – particularly considering the great inspiration Roman sculpture had on Renaissance art and Mannerism.

    However, it is true it may not have held as much appeal for Italian painters, but some examples can be seen in sculpture – the most notable being in the pedestal for Cellini's Perseus – which you can see a pic of HERE

    H

  • Rebekah says:

    Apparently pigs have 18 nipples, which is handy. With Diana, I can only wonder as to the point…?

    I thought Diana was, among many other things, a goddess of chastity? Is it possible the statues are repurposed statues of Leto or Hera?

  • M says:

    H Niyazi: Wow, great eye! I've never noticed that Diana of Ephesus is on the base of Cellini's "Perseus." In true Mannerist fashion, Diana of Ephesus' body is elongated (which allows the multiple breasts to comfortably and elegantly rest on ample torso/chest space). Thanks for pointing this one out.

    Your comment inspired me to look up more information about Cellini and Diana of Ephesus. I discovered a drawing by Cellini (in the British Museum of Art) which also depicts Diana of Ephesus (see here (c. 1563). This drawing was a study for the seal of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence. (The Louvre owns another one of Cellini's studies for this same seal, which also includes Diana of Ephesus). It looks like Cellini was particularly interested in this goddess and her connection with Nature (which was established during the Renaissance, see my discussion below).

    In fact, Mary D. Garrard discusses the base of Cellini's statue in depth in her new book, Brunelleschi's Egg: Nature, Art and Gender in Renaissance Italy (2010). Garrard thinks that the four Ephesian Dianas look "sterile" and "defeated," which she thinks underscores the death of Medusa (since ancient's believe that Medusa's blood could create and destroy life). See Garrard, p. 289.

    I was a little surprised to notice that Mary D. Garrard supports Seiterle's theory of bull testes, particularly since Seiterle's argument isn't popular among many scholars. In her Brunelleschi's Egg book, Garrard discusses how the iconography and symbolism of Artemis (Diana) of Ephesus changes in the Renaissance with the switch to breasts from testes. According to Garrard, this changes the symbolic meaning for Diana of Ephesus: since Renaissance times, she has been seen as a nurturer and symbol of Nature (whereas she finds that in earlier eras she was seen simultaneously as a mother and virgin – but apart from Nature/nurturing). For more information, see Garrard, p. 15.

    Rebekah: Good question! You're right that Diana is often associated with chastity and virginity, and it would cause one to wonder if the sculptures were re-appropriated (i.e. originally depicted another goddess). Some scholars think that Diana of Ephesus functioned as both a mother and a virgin (which seems confusing, but I wouldn't put it past those ancient worshipers!). In fact, I wonder if some of the confusion may arise from the fact that Diana of Ephesus originally was an Anatolian Mother Goddess. The goddess already existed in Anatolia (with connections to fertility since Neolithic times), and seems to have been somewhat appropriated as Artemis (later Diana by the Romans) when Greeks established city-states in Anatolia.

    However, some scholars argue that in her role as Diana of Ephesus, the goddess is not associated with virginity. You can see an art history research paper on the topic here, if you are interested.

    If anyone is interested in seeing more images of details of Diana of Ephesus pictures, see here. Enjoy!

  • Christopher Volpe says:

    To M and Rebekha -

    The confusion about Diana's chastity vs. fertility here is mostly the result of Alberti's not making a distinction between the iconography of Diana (the Greco-Roman chaste huntress with the bow, hunting dogs, virgin followers, and her association the moon) and the "Diana" of Ephesus, who is clearly not Diana at all but a fertility goddess whose name is lost to antiquity.

    M is saying that the Anatolian population previously worshipped a mother/fertility goddess from pre-history, and when the Greeks showed up with spears to colonize the place, they allowed the Anatolians to continue worshipping their own Great Mother goddess, simply dubbing her with the new name "Diana."

    The more I study ancient religions and mythologies, the stronger the case seems to me for the widespread worship of powerful earth-goddess figures in the millennia before the invention of written language – goddesses that later cultures either assimilated or erased from history.

  • Christopher Volpe says:

    To M and Rebekha -

    The confusion about Diana's chastity vs. fertility here is mostly the result of Alberti's not making a distinction between the iconography of Diana (the Greco-Roman chaste huntress with the bow, hunting dogs, virgin followers, and her association the moon) and the "Diana" of Ephesus, who is clearly not Diana at all but a fertility goddess whose name is lost to antiquity.

    M is saying that the Anatolian population previously worshipped a mother/fertility goddess from pre-history, and when the Greeks showed up with spears to colonize the place, they allowed the Anatolians to continue worshipping their own Great Mother goddess, simply dubbing her with the new name "Diana."

    The more I study ancient religions and mythologies, the stronger the case seems to me for the widespread worship of powerful earth-goddess figures in the millennia before the invention of written language – goddesses that later cultures either assimilated or erased from history.

  • M says:

    Hi Christopher! Thanks for your comment (and welcome to my blog – I don't believe that you have commented before). I noticed that you also have an art blog – I'm excited to follow it.

    I wasn't aware of Alberti's discussion of Diana/Artemis. By any chance, do you remember where he discusses Diana? I'd love to have a citation or reference to find further information.

    And, like you said, the Anatolian mother goddess existed before the Greeks. The Greeks simply adopted her into their culture and renamed her "Artemis" (and later "Diana" by the Romans). I'm not sure how many of her original characteristics were the changed by the Greeks – that would be an interesting research topic.

    There does seem to be a widespread worship of mother goddesses in early cultures (and even in some slightly later cultures, after the invention of writing). Have you read any feminist art historians discuss mother goddesses? I remember reading some interesting case studies in the canonical "Feminism and Art History" text (edited by Broude and Garrard).

  • dcbyron says:

    Fascinating stuff, Monica.

    Roll forward a bit from the Renaissance, and we find Hogarth using the Diana Multimammia imagery in his print _Boys Peeping at Nature_ which illustrated the subscription ticket for his _Harlot's Progress_ series.

    See http://www.flickr.com/photos/85009674@N00/2731974761/ for the print.

  • M says:

    Ooh, I wasn't aware of this work by Hogarth, David! Thanks for sharing! That's a really interesting piece. I like that Diana was used as the embodiment of Nature for the print.

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  • Tomás Ó Conghalaigh says:

    she may not have nipples, as the things hanging off her may be bull testicles as opposed to breasts. see here http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/ephesus-museum.htm

  • Tomás Ó Conghalaigh says:

    she may not have nipples, as the things hanging off her may be bull testicles as opposed to breasts. see here http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/ephesus-museum.htm

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.